Uptown Is Upside Down

Remembering Harlem, when a sense of community trumped corporate greed


© Photo Collection Alexander Alland, Sr. / CORBIS

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Yo, Hamm!
You been to Harlem lately? Yo, son, uptown is upside down! I know things change, but this is crazy. It’s like I blinked and the whole neighborhood was different. The vibe of it, the tone, the attitude—the things that made Harlem Harlem-World were gone.

Nah, I’m not gonna skirt the issue; I’m just gonna be straight up. I ain’t no racist, but why is gentrification always synonymous with whitewashing? Real talk, my dude. It’s like every time a neighborhood is supposedly made better, it’s done for the benefit of upper-class Anglo-Saxon types, and usually at the social expense of the “indigenous populations” (translation: colored folks).

What was more upscale or uplifting than Harlem during the time of its Renaissance? What was more fun than cakewalking, lindy-hopping, jitterbugging, and shagging at the Savoy Ballroom, Cotton Club, or Small’s Paradise? Or taking in a show at the Apollo? According to the old heads ’round the way, it was live. Things took a turn for the worse when narcotics hit the ’hood in a devastating way, but was this new way the only way to rid our streets of “street-side pharmaceuticals”? Maybe we shoulda gone retro. Retro to the Renaissance. Back to a time when each street had a sense of community as opposed to corporate greed.

There’s a luxury tower where my favorite bakery used to be, my dude. Straight cheese: Donald Trump’s power trumped the power of the locals. Man, that little mom & pop shop used to sell the best red-velvet cupcakes I ever tasted. And you know “luxury” is just code for unaffordable to the people who’ve lived and worked in the area most of their lives.

Don’t get me wrong, man. New faces are cool, but what happened to the old ones? Where they at? Relocated? Have they been moved to reservations or something?

I mean, it’s a good look and all—the new blood that’s being pumped into Harlem. I ain’t mad that where there used to be a liquor store on every corner, now there’s mad coffeehouses. And I ain’t mad that there are fewer abandoned buildings, or that I don’t see so many hand-to-hand sales right out in the open. I’m not even mad that there are now a whole lotta people who look nothing like me in what used to be my stomping grounds, my ’hood. No, I’m cool with that. At least there’s still two or three churches and a masjid on every block to be a stabilizing force in the community. But what kinda gets me tight is the fact that there seems to be a greater police presence now. Where was that when the neighborhood was mostly brown? Do brown people deserve less protection?

Now I can’t even afford to live in Harlem. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I sweat this new Harlem that seems to have sprung up overnight. Some say it’s progress. I say progress comes with a price.

A’ight, later, Hamm. One.

Rodney Robinson is a writer who lived in Harlem but now lives in the Bronx. He composed this letter to his former instructor and Brooklyn Rail editor Theodore Hamm. Excerpted from The Brooklyn Rail, a monthly magazine offering critical perspectives on art, politics, and culture. www.brooklynrail.org 

Cover-169-thumb.jpgHave something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.